Sunday, October 28, 2012

My new favourite gaming mouse mat ever.

Long time readers of my blog (I guess that's you and me Mum) will know that I believe every PC gamer needs a decent mouse mat. Unfortunately mouse mats went the way of the buggy whip about a decade ago with the advent of optical mice that worked reasonably well on just about any hard surface.  "Reasonably well" is fine for browsing the internet or editing text documents but "reasonably well" doesn't cut it when it comes to PC gaming. I have yet to come across a table top that allows the precision and freedom of movement that a PC gaming mouse requires.

Here are the basics requirements for a gaming mouse mat:

1. The surface needs to have sufficient texture for the mouse optics to pick up. This is by far the easiest requirement to achieve because a modern optical or laser mouse seems to work on just about any surface.

2. The top surface needs to have very low friction.  This is where most table tops fall down. Any friction will drastically reduce the responsiveness of the mouse. Worse it can give rise to a jerky movement due to sticktion. Many mouse mats with textured material or rubbery surfaces are just as bad. On a good mouse mat tapping the mouse gently with your fingers should send it sliding across the surface.

3. The bottom surface needs to have high friction so that it doesn't slip around the table. Some cheap mouse mats fail this test.

4. The mouse mat needs to be either very thin or very hard.This is where many fancy mouse mats fall down. A cushioned foam surface may be comfy for your hand but it is disastrous for a gaming mouse. The mouse will literally bed down into the surface making it impossible to move the cursor with any precision. Jerkiness is almost guaranteed with a spongy surface.

The incredible thing about these requirements is how many expensive mouse mats get it so wrong. In fact I have come to the conclusion that the more expensive a mouse mat is the worse it will perform. My new favourite mouse mat cost me all of €1.99 and it is superb. I am convinced that this mat would do more for any PC gamer than a fancy €100+  gaming mouse. 

Here are some pictures:


Front
Back
 

edge view

another edge view

The packaging
 The mat itself is paper thin with a picture on the top side and a stippled foil backing. The top side offers very low friction while the foil side sticks, somewhat surprisingly, to the table like glue. In fact the only downside to this mat is that you literally have to peel it off the table if you want to move the mat to a different position.

The mat is manufactured in Taiwan and the distributor is either called Smiling Hand or Yummy, the packaging isn't clear (hey it was only €2) but I cannot find it online. This 3M precision mousing surface looks like something similar however.


Monday, October 15, 2012

A Lesson in Comparative Advantage from the Washing Machine Repair Guy


I am an engineer by profession and even if I say so myself I think I am a pretty good one. My father was a carpenter who built houses for a living so I like to think I can handle the practical side of things as well as the theoretical. There are few repair jobs around the house that I cannot do.

Just because I can do a job however doesn't necessarily mean that I should do a job.

When our dishwasher broke down a while back I managed to fix it. It was my first time looking inside a dishwasher so it took a considerable amount of trial and error to narrow down the fault and source a replacement part. It only took me three weeks fitted into spare hours when I was home from work and not otherwise occupied. My wife, who is a very very good wife, was even effusive in her praise at my manliness in fixing the machine and kindly neglected to mention the many floodings of the Kitchen floor during the three weeks of my trial attempts. She didn't even comment on the small pile of unwanted spare parts I had accumulated that turned out to be not quite the right thing.

When our washing machine broke down yesterday I bravely opened it up to poke around. Unlike the dishwasher I had worked on washing machines machine before so I was able to check the obvious stuff:
Water getting into it: Check
Spinning Drum working: Check
Water draining out of it: Check
All the basic functions appeared to be working on their own and yet they were refusing to come together to complete a wash cycle. I was flummoxed but we live in the age of boundless information so soon I was exploring Google sourced  error codes and homing in on possibly faulty sensors or control boards.

I could fix this. With a bit of luck it might not even take the full three weeks this time.

Thank fully I came to my senses. There are people out there who fix washing machines all day every day. They know the things that go wrong. They know how to track down faults. They have ready access to spare parts and they know how to quickly get in and replace them. While three weeks of washing dishes by hand could arguably be justified as good training for our children I don't' think three weeks of washing clothes by hand would go down too well. Amazingly my (really really) good wife allowed me the space to come to this realisation all by myself  (unless she is even more subtle than I know).

The repair man came promptly this morning. He diagnosed the fault and fixed it with a replacement part from his van all within 40 minutes.  The part cost €60 and he charged another €60 for his time. I guess I could have saved €60 by fixing it myself but I would hope that the three weeks of my time that it would have taken is more valuable than €60, not to mention the cost of the small pile of wrongly guessed spares I would likely have accumulated along the way.

Best of all: my (really really really) good wife is even giving me effusive praise for having arranged the repair so promptly.

Edit: Title changed from "competitive advantage"  to "comparative advantage" because it is more appropriate.

Random Thoughts from an FTL addict

The only fair fight in the game

Much has been made  of the way FTL: Faster than Light brings old school unfairness back into gameplay. You can find yourself hopelessly outclassed on the very first jump of the game.  You might be surprised then to discover that I have come to the conclusion that the final boss fight, despite being an order of magnitude more difficult than any encounter which precedes it is the only fair fight in the game. It is very difficult without a doubt but it is also brutally fair because it is utterly predictable. I have only managed to overcome the boss four times (twice on easy, twice on normal) but I now know the fight and I know exactly what to expect and how to prepare for it. If I get as far as the boss I now know that failure will be because my ship is not prepared or because I make some error in play and that in my opinion is fair. The real unfairness comes from the random encounters at lower levels that can undermine any promising campaign or perhaps the unfairest games of all  are those where lady luck allow you to limp along to the eighth and final level but denies you the vital upgrades needed to make a serious attempt on the boss.

On replayability
 Having played literally hundreds of games of FTL I am proof of its re-playability. At first re-playability comes from the sheer challenge of getting to and overcoming the boss. Once the boss is defeated however there are still many achievements to collect and lots of new ships to unlock. The new ships, which have widely differing starting abilities, can really add variety to the first few levels of the game. Unfortunately these various ships have for the most part access to the same upgrades so that by the time you get to the final level one fully upgraded ship looks much like any other. This is compounded by the predictability of the boss fight and the fact that certain strategies work better than others. On any serious boss run I find myself prioritising certain upgrades from the very start of the game and that quickly dissipates any starting variety.

The length of time a game takes
When I started playing FTL games lasted from a couple of minutes to a maximum of one hour which mitigated somewhat the crushing disappointment of my inevitable defeats. Now however, having learned more about the game, I find myself playing much more slowly. I pause the game constantly to plan every move. My shots, for example, are timed to hit the instant my opponents shields fall. Such micromanagement is essential for overcoming the hardest fights but greatly extends the duration of a game. A serious boss run is likely to take three hours or more.

On addiction
I don't normally do grind in games. I tend to get bored fairly quickly and move on once the game play becomes repetitive. Nevertheless I have been playing FTL compulsively for several weeks and I have sunk more time into the game than I am comfortable with.  I am not sure what secret sauce this game has that hooked me so but but time has come to stop playing, at least for a while.


Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Is FTL really like Rogue?

The developers of the terrific little space ship game FTL:Faster than light  call it "roguelike" and better gaming minds than mine agree with them. Yet as a rule I don't like rogue games but I love FTL. How can this be?

My experience with rogue games started with Rogue itself played in glorious ASCII on college computers back in the 1980's. I wasted many hours on it  when I should have been studying but I never came close to finishing a game and ultimately I found it a frustrating experience and got bored.  I have dallied with various descendants of Rogue over the years, the most recent being the highly regarded Dungeons of Dredmor but my experience is always the same. The games suck me in quickly and are quite compelling at first but soon I get tired and frustrated with the repetitive game-play. However cleverly they name things and however challenging the monsters are  I quickly come to feel that I am playing a more challenging version of   Progress Quest:
Explore, Kill, loot so you can
Explore further, Kill tougher monsters and get better loot
and so on util you die
and then start again. 

Yet I love FTL.

The core framework of FTL is undoubtedly rogue-like: You travel from one procedurally generated sector (room) to the next and must overcome procedurally generated challenges along the way. You must gather loot and upgrade your character intelligently in order to survive with a multitude of non trivial upgrade choices to be made. The game has a roguelike's uncompromising difficulty level with perma-death and the ever present possibility of the dice coming down against you resulting in an untimely death despite your best efforts.

So why do I like it?

The space setting is undoubtedly a big plus for me. I am a child of the 1960's and space will forever be my favourite setting. There is more than that though. FTL is more interactive than a typical rogue game. Instead of a single character you have a space ship. You have multiple systems and subsystems to control and you have a crew to manage. Combat is very far from simple as you need to juggle energy and weapons and subsystems all the while frantically trying to use your crew to hold you own ship together under fire.

This interactivity has a much greater stickiness for me than a traditional single character rogue-like.  Ultimately your fate is still in the lap of the Gods and a single unfortunate encounter will scupper the best laid plans but you feel more in control. The options available to you are varied and subtle and it is possible to learn the game and get better. This is what keeps me interested in FTL.

There is an interesting article in Gama-Sutra  where they suggest that this ability to master seemingly impossible challenges by learning to play better is a feature of all rogue-likes. Perhaps it is but I don't remember ever getting that far in a more traditional Rogue-like. I think the more obvious interactivity of FTL also makes the learning curve more obvious. New players may focus on weapons and shields for example  but they will notice that the ship has other functions such as life support, door controls and sensors.  Succumbing to asphyxiation or fire or boarding parties will eventually get them thinking about these systems and how they might be able to use them next time around.



Tuesday, October 02, 2012

FTL

It was the doors that got me in the end.


The good (space) ship Dodo only managed 2 miserable jumps before meeting the drone that would be her undoing. The drone may have looked innocuous enough but its first volley took out Dodo's weapons and things began to look bad.

A crew member frantically tried to bring  weapons back online but in the mean time the drone was free to pound the ship with missiles. Those missiles passed right through shields and soon fires were burning throughout the ship.

The crew tried to put out the conflagrations while the hail of missiles continued. One brave ensign lost his life in the effort and the Captain realised that more desperate steps would be required. Pulling the crew back to a safe area he opened the airlocks in order to vent air from the fiery regions. This drastic method worked and the flames were extinguished so the crew set about repairing the damage. With life support, shields, weapons and engines all damaged no one paid much attention when the door controls took an unlucky hit.

Patching together a laser they managed to disable the drone's missile weapon and the crew felt a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the ensuing lull would give them enough time to  repair a few vital systems starting with life support. Oxygen levels were running dangerously low so this had become rather urgent. They reckoned there was enough time to fix it before everyone suffocated but but it was essential to get someone down to life support to start the repairs immediately.

Unfortunately life support was still open to the vacuum of space

and the door controls were offline.